Ukrainian defenders hold on in Bakhmut, Putin’s mobilization fails

7 March, 01:52 PM
Streets of Bakhmut destroyed by Russian strikes, March 3, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Streets of Bakhmut destroyed by Russian strikes, March 3, 2023 (Photo:REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

Ukraine's struggle to hold Bakhmut has become strategically important because of the composition of Russian forces stationed in the area, the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War or ISW said on March 6.

This battle could completely deplete the best forces of Russia’s Wagner mercenary company and inflict losses on other elite units, depriving Russia of some of its most effective strike forces, ISW analysts said.

Statements by a number of Ukrainian officials about their intention to continue defending Bakhmut are likely at least partly in response to ongoing concerns expressed by some U.S. officials about the cost to Ukraine of continuing to defend Bakhmut, ISW analysts said, commenting on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's latest statements.

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The Ukrainian leader on March 6 said he had ordered reinforcements to be sent to Bakhmut and there was unanimity of opinion with Ukrainian Generals Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Oleksandr Syrskyi on the need to continue the defense of the Donbas town.

Advisor to the President’s Office Mykhailo Podolyak also said on March 6 that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut had "achieved its goals" and was a significant strategic success.

ISW experts note that the town is not inherently significant from an operational or strategic point of view, but the capture of Bakhmut is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for Russia's further advance in Donetsk Oblast.

However, Russian forces have already suffered such heavy losses in the battle for the settlement that their offensive is likely to culminate after they capture it — if not before, ISW said.

Thus, even the loss of Bakhmut should not pose a serious operational or strategic problem for Ukraine, as previously confirmed by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Still, the fight for Bakhmut has become strategically important for Ukraine because of the current composition of Russian forces stationed in the area. Some Western reports have recently suggested that the Ukrainian army is expending manpower and ammunition mainly on Wagner PMC recruits — former prisoners who are common cannon fodder — making such losses unprofitable for Ukraine even if the ratio of Russian to Ukrainian casualties is high.

In general, ISW states that this observation has merit, although the number of combat-ready Russian prisoners is not unlimited, and the final destruction of tens of thousands of them in Bakhmut means that they will not be available for more important battles.

Moreover, the Russian forces fighting in Bakhmut now consist not only of convicts, but also of elite elements of the Wagner PMC and Russian airborne troops (VDV), along with other lower-quality units. The new Ukrainian intelligence data on the involvement of more "high-quality" troops in the Bakhmut battle coincides with ISW's previous observations of an increase in Russian airborne troops in the Bakhmut area since late December.

In fact, the battle for Bakhmut could severely deplete Wagner's best troops, depriving Russia of some of its most effective strike troops, who will be difficult to replace. ISW recalls that Wagner's offensive had already reached a climax once (previously in the Bakhmut area — ed.), forcing the Russian Ministry of Defense to deploy some of its elite airborne troops to the battle.

It is quite possible that the offensive on Bakhmut will again culminate before the town is taken, forcing the Russian army to choose between abandoning further offensive efforts or having to throw even more high-quality troops into the battle. Hence, there is an opportunity for Ukraine to deal a blow to the most elite Russian troops in defensive battles in urban areas, where the enemy's attrition gradient significantly favors the Ukrainian Armed Forces, ISW said.

At the same time, recent statements by Wagner PMC financier Yevgeny Prigozhin indicate that he is probably dissatisfied and has reservations about his forces being wasted in this way.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is returning to its previous (and ineffective) practice of recruiting "volunteers" for the war and covert mobilization, apparently to avoid another large forced conscription of "reservists." ISW analysts have noticed that Russian Telegram channels have started advertising recruitment to "volunteer battalions" again after such calls were stopped in September 2022, at the beginning of the "partial mobilization" in Russia.

Additionally, some local Russian officials are now setting up mobile recruitment centers to promote "voluntary" military service under contract, a phenomenon ISW observed between late May 2022 and September 2022. Russian ultra-nationalist social media also increasingly advertise recruitment for Wagner PMC units in nearly 30 cities across Russia, and Ukrainian officials have documented cases of the Russian military recruiting teenagers born in 2006 in Russian-occupied Luhansk Oblast.

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Such recruitment campaigns may indicate that the Kremlin is running out of combat-ready reserves to continue Russian offensive operations after the Battle of Bakhmut and unsuccessful offensives around Vuhledar and in Luhansk Oblast.

Previously, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin launched similar campaigns in late May 2022, when the Russian military began to run out of reserves during a grueling offensive on the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk line — more than a month before the Russian offensive reached its climax and was exhausted in Luhansk Oblast. Perhaps the Kremlin is now repeating similar efforts in the hope that the involvement of such irregular forces will be enough to keep the initiative of the Russian army on the front line, ISW analysts said.

However, Russian veterans and "milbloggers" have noted that Russia will not be able to achieve its goals and reach the administrative borders of Donetsk Oblast without a large-scale mobilization of personnel, the economy, and industry.

The resumption of volunteer recruitment and covert mobilization campaigns probably also indicates that the Kremlin will launch the next wave of mobilization no earlier than the summer of 2023, as the spring conscription cycle is due to begin on April 1. Earlier, Western officials suggested that since January 2023, Putin had been postponing the announcement of the second wave of mobilization and was leaning toward a "quiet mobilization" due to concerns about the stability of his regime.

Since the fall of 2022, ISW has observed numerous signs that Russia was preparing to conduct a second wave of mobilization, but Putin missed this mobilization window to avoid further escalating tensions in Russian society. Now, the Russian Defense Ministry is unlikely to be able to actively mobilize reservists in the near future, the Institute's analysts predict.

They note that Russian military enlistment offices have the administrative capacity to raise only 130,000 conscripts per six-month cycle.

Other conclusions of ISW analysts over the past day:

  • regarding the high-profile video of the Russian military shooting a Ukrainian prisoner, ISW stresses that "executing POWs without a prior judgement from a regularly constituted court is a violation of Article III of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War";
  • A reportedly captured Russian military manual suggests that Russian forces intend to use the newly created “assault detachment” elements in urban warfare;
  • Russian forces utilized a new type of guided aerial bomb, the UPAB-1500 B, against Ukrainian targets amid continued precision missile shortages;
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks northwest of Svatove and near Kreminna in Luhansk Oblast;
  • Russian forces secured territorial gains in Bakhmut, but have not yet encircled the city or forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw;
  • Russian forces continued to conduct ground attacks near Avdiyivka and west of Donetsk City;
  • Russian forces continue struggling to maintain fire control over the DniproRiver Delta in Kherson Oblast;
  • Russian military command is failing to properly equip its forces despite forces increasingly conducting close combat in Ukraine.

Battle map: battle for Bakhmut, fighting in Donbas and Zaporizhzhya Oblast, situation in the south and northeast of Ukraine

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